Assessing the Hurricanes a quarter of the way through the season

Youth has been served in Carolina’s 13-7-1 start

Andrei Svechnikov has emerged as a star in his second NHL season. (Karl B DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Twenty-one games into the NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes have built off last year’s success and established themselves as playoff contenders. At 13-7-1 after Tuesday night’s win in Chicago, the Hurricanes are third in the Metropolitan Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference.

It’s as good a time as any to assess what’s going right and wrong, which players are thriving and performing below expectations, and how Carolina is doing on special teams.

Forwards

The Hurricanes currently have four players on pace for 30 or more goals, though it was revealed Monday that center Erik Haula — one of those players, with eight goals in 16 games — will miss a significant amount of time due to problems with his surgically repaired knee.

Andrei Svechnikov is emerging as a star in his second season. He is tied for the team lead in goals (10) and points (23), and leads the team in power play goals (4) and game-winners (3). He is also just four assists shy of the 17 he had all of his rookie season, and Svechnikov’s nine multipoint games are two more than he had in 2018-19 and ranks tied for seventh in the league.

Despite a slow start, Sebastian Aho is up to 10 goals and has 16 points through 20 games. That’s only a 62-point pace, but Aho has 10 points in his last nine games and has started to look more like himself of late.

Often-overlooked Teuvo Teravainen is having another solid season, coupling his sound — and also under-appreciated — defensive play with a team-high 14 assists among his 19 points. He’s been particularly effective on the power play with nine helpers after setting a career-high with 16 man-advantage assists last season.

Ryan Dzingel (4-10-14) has fit in as expected, but he has been more of a playmaker than a finisher in his first 21 games in Carolina.

Rookie Martin Necas is doing the things many expected him to do last season. A year in the AHL has served to Czech 20-year-old well, and his combination of speed, hands and vision have him on a track to stardom. While Necas is playing right wing this season, the team sees him as a center down the road. He’s been hot of late, with points in nine of his last 10 games, and his 15 points are tied for second among NHL rookies.

The biggest disappointment has been Nino Niederreiter, who had just two goals and eight points through 20 games. While the Swiss winger has struggled to finish — he led the team’s forwards in missed shots and boasted a 5.9% shooting percentage heading into Tuesday’s game — things might be trending more toward his career 13.4% rate after he netted a goal and an assist against the Blackhawks. 

Defense

If not for Washington’s John Carlson, Dougie Hamilton would likely be the early-season frontrunner for the Norris Trophy. Carlson leads all blueliners with 35 points, but Hamilton has a league-high nine goals and is tied for second (with Colorado rookie Cale Makar) with 23 points.

Hamilton is playing nearly 3½ minutes more per game (23:04) than he did a season ago and is a top penalty killer for the first time in his career, averaging 2:07 shorthanded after previously topping out at 1:10 with Boston back in 2014-15.

Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce continue to be their reliable selves, both logging more than 21½ minutes a night while anchoring the team defensively. Slavin’s 12 points have him on pace 47, which would easily top his career-high of 34 in 2016-17.

Jake Gardiner, signed this offseason to essentially replace Justin Faulk, has struggled with just six points — including only two on the power play. Like Hamilton a year ago, it could just take Gardiner time to adapt to a new system — for what it’s worth, Faulk has had similar struggles in St. Louis with just six assists through 22 games.

Joel Edmundson, acquired from the Blues in the Faulk trade, has added snarl to the back end and — after going without a point in his first 17 games with the Hurricanes — is on a four-game point streak with six points after Tuesday’s win.

Trevor van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury continue to jockey for the No. 6 job, and the loser in that battle could be shipped out of town.

Goalies

While Petr Mrazek’s individual numbers (2.57 goals-against average, .907 save percentage) aren’t eye-popping, it’s hard to argue with his 10-3-1 record. He’s also been better than those numbers indicate, recording two shutouts while being the victim of some defensive breakdowns in other games.

James Reimer’s numbers aren’t all that worse — his save percentage is .903 but his goals-against is 3.07. But he’s just 3-4-0 in seven starts and the team has two other options — Checkers goalies Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic — available if he falters further.

Special Teams

The Hurricanes’ power play has stalled at times this season, but the team’s 23.4% conversion rate ranks eighth in the league. You can bet they’ll take it after being 17.8% a year ago and never cracking 20% in a previous season in Carolina.

At 84.0%, the penalty kill is in the top third of the league (ranked tied for ninth), and the kill rate is an improvement over last season’s 81.6% rate, which ranked eighth.

My guess is the power play will drop a bit — only 31 teams have converted 23.8% or more since 2000 — but Carolina will be happy if they’re on the right side of 100% total between both special teams units.